It feels like there is more conflict than ever at all levels of society, between individuals, within organisations, in government and globally. Workplace conflict is an ever-increasing issue. 

In 2021 estimated that an average of 485,000 employees resign each year as a result of conflict. The cost of replacing them is £2.6 billion each year and lost output amounts to £12.2 billion each year. A further 874,000 employees are estimated to take sickness absences each year due to conflict, at an estimated cost to their organisations of £2.2 billion. It is thought the costs will be even greater now.

So what can colleagues do in the moment when conflict in the workplace is looking like it will boil over?

As conflict grows it is rather like being on an escalator travelling rapidly towards the basement and we need to imagine pressing the red button at the bottom of the escalator for a few moments and then allowing it to flow in the opposite direction of de-escalation.  This relies on the key principle of transformative mediation to enable employees to have the skills, tools and mindset to transform interactions that have become negative, destructive, toxic, alienating and demonising, to become connected, responsive, positive, open and humanising.

First, we need to be conscious or aware of the patterns and processes at play. Warning signs include angry comments or behaviour, microaggressions such as sending secret notes or emails about others, avoiding interacting or talking to a person and side-lining them from meetings or events. Gossip or conversations behind someone else’s back, being ignored or talked over are tell-tale signs.

Colleagues working slowly on purpose, deliberate delay in work delivery and withholding knowledge, as well as a culture of aggressive competition or low morale and loss of energy and motivation, are important red flags.

The ten rules for de-escalating conflict in the moment:

1)    Appreciate the danger of doing nothing and the power you both have to resolve this before it escalates into something much bigger.  Understand where you have got to on the escalator to stop the rise in tension.  Choose to step off the escalator or stop its direction of travel to have a more effective dialogue.

2)    Create a safe space to address issues. Breathe. Now might not be the right moment. It might be better to take some time to cool down. Schedule a meeting between the two parties in or outside the office environment, even going for a walk if it is just two of you. Don’t involve others who don’t need to be involved. If necessary, break up the dialogue into bite-size chunks rather than attempt to resolve matters in one go. Take 20-minute breaks during the dialogue if needed.

3)    Try to regulate your own emotions and ask others to do the same. It’s challenging. Ask for tone and voice volume to stay calm.  Look for non-verbal cues for how someone is thinking such as body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and gestures.

4)    Take the heat out and share what your concerns are and why. Avoid being accusatory and instead share the impact the issues are having on your business and life.

5)    Accept there may be different interpretations of the same event. Don’t jump the gun and leap to conclusions. Listen and reflect back rather than having parallel conversations with others.

6)    What is this really about on the surface and on a deeper level for each individual? Avoid thinking it is about losing face or winning. Question whether you are both wearing the wrong shoes and coming with an erroneous approach.  Look at what the blocks are.

7)    Gently analyse if either or both of you may be carrying baggage into the scenario which may be impacting matters. Sometimes it is about something else, and the other party may not know an important part of the puzzle. Excuses aren’t helpful but understanding the context of each other’s lives may well be.

8)    Take the time for deep listening and be respectful of others’ views. Acknowledge where the other person is coming from. Practice empathy and acknowledge their feelings. Rehumanise – when we slip into tension and conflict we can demonise one another.  See the other person as a human being.

9)    Identify the goal and outcome both parties want. Focus on the future and not the past. Find common ground for compromise. What matters most to you and why? What do you both need for the matter to be resolved? What steps could you take now to clarify the problem and avoid escalation?

10)  If this doesn’t work and you can’t manage the issues between you, involve a third neutral party (internal or external).

Jane Gunn International Mediator, Author and Keynote Speaker 16
Jane Gunn
Conflict Specalist at The Barefoot Mediator

Listed as a global leader in Who’s Who Mediation and featured in the Legal 500 Hall of Fame, Jane Gunn, known as "The Barefoot Mediator," is an expert in conflict resolution. She assists high-performing businesses and leaders worldwide in making critical decisions during crises. Jane has spoken at the United Nations, The White House, and the European Commission, and is a former President of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.